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Program aims to give students with disabilities life experience

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by Erik Kaufman for the Mitchell Republic, Oct. 13, 2021

Gaining independence and employment skills are vital for any post-secondary student.

And a program partnership between LifeQuest and Dakota Wesleyan University are making sure no students are left behind.

The Wesleyan Quest program, now in its sixth year, serves as a two-year transitional program whose mission is to give students with intellectual or developmental disabilities a college experience with the goal of helping them develop employment skills, self-advocate and practice self-discipline and independence.

Roxi Brown, secondary education coordinator at Dakota Wesleyan University and director of the program, said Wesleyan Quest found its start when it was noticed that there were students with disabilities who were being left out of the college education experience following high school.

“We were finding there was a lapse between the ages of 18 and 21 where they kind of fell through the cracks for services.  This program gives them an opportunity to be on a college campus where their peers are also transitioning into adulthood. It’s 100% inclusive. They’re doing the same things as their college peers,” Brown said.

That social interaction is extremely important for continued development and is something that is often overlooked in high school years.

Some special education programs are segregated, leaving students in those programs sometimes left out of activities or experiences that can help them transition into adult life.

“That’s the mission and that’s what you gain living life in the real world and having to make real world decisions.

If the bus doesn’t show up, you have to call and figure out where it is. What is your productivity going to be if a class is canceled?” Brown said.

The program offers a variety of facets that can enhance the college educational experience for qualifying students.

It provides courses for audit or credit, utilizes person-centered planning, helps them develop peer networks through extracurricular activities and offers on and off campus work opportunities in the community.

The program gets those students out in the real world, which includes their campus experience at Dakota Wesleyan and the extra-curricular activities as well as potential placement with an employer in the community.

“It involves gaining work experience and also emphasizes the importance of community service. Students are expected to be involved with vocational rehabilitation, which allows students to go out into the community to work for an employer to gain experience as well as getting them involved on campus and activities,” Brown said.

Students in the program are not full-time students and do not live in the dormitories like traditional students.

Some are capable of living independently, though some are not.

Some commute from within about a 40-mile radius of Mitchell to be involved and take part in the program.

The program accepts four to five students a year, with four currently being involved this school year.

Two of the main points of the program is to help the students develop work skills with local business partners.

Students taking part in Wesleyan Quest currently hold positions at businesses like Vern Eide, Menards and Weber Cleaning. Brown said the opportunity to work with local businesses is crucial to the overall experience.

“We’re really lucky to live in the Mitchell community,” Brown said. “The community employers are so wonderful about allowing students to come in and get that experience within the business. The goal is always to do a good job.”

Campus life for the students also gives them a closer feel of college social life and helps develop skills that will help students gain confidence and social experience. Those activities are generally held in the evening, allowing students who may be working off campus a chance to experience that interaction.

“The biggest and most fun is getting to participate in extracurricular activities. We have had (students participate as) student managers, pep band, the esports team, the administration group and theater,” Brown said.

Graduates of the twoyear program receive a certificate of completion and are better prepared to enter the workforce.

About 10 students have gone through the program so far, with some even requesting to continue participation past the normal two years.

That’s a good sign that students and their parents are seeing the benefits of the program and that there may be more out there who would like to be a part of it.

“Every student that has taken part says their family and school district has been very pleased with the program. The progress that they make is tremendous,” Brown said.  “When they ask if they can come back next year, that tells me something is going right and they’re enjoying it. Getting that feedback tells me it’s going in the right direction.”

Despite a successful run of six years, the program is still looking to make some adjustments to better serve students.

With some students unable to live on their own, Brown is looking to recruit local families who may be willing to be a host family for students during the school year.

Wesleyan Quest Program Details

Living in or in close proximity to Mitchell allows students to easily take part in the activities, and host families could help make that an easier reality.

“That’s one of the barriers right now for the Wesleyan Quest program.

If they’re not in the Mitchell community it’s hard to participate in (on-campus activities or the work program),” Brown said.

Host families would also help open up the program to students who may be much farther away from Mitchell than some of those who currently take part.

If students can take that step toward independence with the help of a local home, it means they don’t have to have the ability to commute in order to attend work, classes or activities.

That’s something Brown said the program would like to offer to all students in South Dakota, not just regional ones.

“We could reach more of South Dakota,” Brown said. “I would like to have the opportunity to reach out all over our state.”

Brown said those interested in the program can reach out to LifeQuest for more information at 605-996-2032 or at their Facebook page.

Eligibility requirements

Dakota Wesleyan University and LifeQuest list the following eligibility requirements for potential students in the program:

  • Age 18-21
  • Qualify for funding through IEP
  • Primary goal of employment
  • Ability to fund books and meal plan if desired
  • Ability to fund courses (VR may be able to help with costs if requirements are met)
  • Transportation to and from the DWU campus (VR may be able to help if requirements met)
  • Proven ability to independently participate appropriately in a classroom and professional setting
  • Completed LifeQuest application by Jan. 30 and completed a campus visit and interview by Feb. 29. All applicants committed to coming to the program for the following fall semester should have all paperwork completed and school contracts signed by May 30.
  • Recommendation from current school district teacher, counselor or administration.